Jack Ma provides valuable lessons for Africa’s ICT leaders

Read time 6min 00sec
Jack Ma with president Cyril Ramaphosa.
Jack Ma with president Cyril Ramaphosa.

Jack Ma reimagined his country as a global player on the Internet and he went on to make a fortune based on that vision.

The celebrated entrepreneur had no experience with computers or coding, but as his life story goes, was enchanted by the Internet when he used it for the first time during a trip to the US in 1995.

Ma’s imagination was triggered after he was shocked to find that no Chinese beers turned up in the results of his first online search: "beer". It is said that’s when the idea of an Internet company for China was born.

He ran with his idea of a company for Chinese people, and started at age 33, with the help of 17 of his friends, convincing them to invest in his imagined online marketplace, Alibaba, which allowed exporters to post product listings that customers could buy directly.

Yesterday, the Chinese business magnate announced his departure as Alibaba’s executive chairman.

He built Alibaba into a $460 billion business over the past two decades, and will now join other retired billionaires in focusing on philanthropy.

The revered Chinese entrepreneur started the Jack Ma Foundation in 2014, which he said at the time was inspired by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

While retiring relatively young, he has lived life according to his ideals, rather than those the world had already decided on. Ma followed his passion, and amassed a fortune along the way.  

Reacting to the news of his retirement, industry analysts tell ITWeb that ICT leaders in SA and on the continent could learn a great deal from Ma.

Ajay Lalu, founder of empowerment outfit Black Lite Group, says Ma’s life is a practical business guide for entrepreneurs and local industry leaders.

“The biggest lesson for African ICT executives from Jack Ma is that you don’t have to be a well-known technologist, or even a graduate from a top university to build a business with global impact. It’s possible to focus on your domestic market and we shouldn’t forget that.”

According to the United Nations, Africa will account for 42% of the world’s youth (15-35 years) by 2030, up from 17% in 2015. 

This, Lalu says: “”Translates to approximately 500 million youth in Africa. This is a staggering market dynamic that our ICT sector should focus on. There is technology we can successfully deploy. Ma is a fantastic example of what we can do with the right tenacity. It’s time that we really show the world we can become a real Wakanda, forever!”

Lalu believes technology leaders in SA and Africa should be far more involved and engage more vociferously with the governments, as “there are so many government policies that support, albeit in a disjointed manner, the ICT sector from skills to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).”

“When we look at how Ma influenced the growth path of China, he was instrumental in getting support from government to help build the economy from manufacturing to a leading ICT-based economy.

“If you look at a number of corporates here in SA, from Dimension Data to Naspers, they can do more to help develop ICT businesses. Companies should support new businesses. If we talk about 4IR, we are talking about the smaller companies; that’s what we should be focusing on because there is no real venture capital (VC) initiative in South Africa or Africa.

“Many South African start-ups are frustrated by the lack of capital and support to enable growth and propel them into the 4IR. We should come up with a VC initiative for high growth, high impact start-ups in Africa like the Founders Factory. Typical of VC investments, you will have a few unicorns but a number of them will be frogs, which will yield nothing.”

Petri Redelinghuys, founder of Herenya Capital Advisors, says: “From watching Jack Ma’s talks and hearing his views over the years, [the lesson] is that if you make a product or service and you do that with the intent to really help people and improve their lives in some way, only then does your product or service stand a chance of becoming successful.

“Often we focus on making money and wonder why our businesses don’t grow, while we should be focused on making a difference to the people that our businesses serve. If we can truly make an impact, for the better, on the lives of the people that make use of our products and services, then our businesses will end up with millions of people to serve.”

Redelinghuys believes ICT sector leaders should value education the way Ma did.

“He challenged the current schooling system and pointed out that what we are teaching our youth, more often than not, is completely out-dated and no longer relevant to society. He advocated that we teach empathy, art, science and technology. I think he’s right; I think the best lesson we can learn from him is that we need to keep learning, and that we need to teach.

“Only by teaching the youth can we progress. All this technology and ease of living is useless if people are not educated,” he says.  

Cape Town-based Peter Takaendesa of Mergence Investment Managers believes the key lesson from Ma is: “Trust others to carry on with your vision and success. I think it is a great lesson for business, politics and personal life. There is no need to wait for death to force change because as humans, we can contribute to many other worthy causes in the world.

“Ma handing over at a relatively young age of 55 is particularly relevant in the fast-changing technology sector as what worked just a few years ago may not be relevant this year in that sector.”

Takaendesa says there is no doubt that a big part of Ma’s success and other technology success stories in China is partly due to strong support from the Chinese government.

“Governments in Africa need to seriously consider increased support to their technology sectors and entrepreneurs through education, access to funding and markets, as well as an enabling environment. This is particularly relevant now as the world shifts to the 4IR. Africa is losing some of its greatest technology minds to developed countries, and lack of support at home is likely one of the key reasons.

“There are some great technology innovations and companies in Africa but nothing that comes close to the scale that is required to compete at global level.”

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